Cinema’s Underworld

In some ways, the raucous party of the Roaring Twenties was sublimated in the movies of the late 1920s and early 1930s — a brief period at the beginning of the sound era before censorship guidelines were enforced. During those “pre-code” times everyone from preachers to publishers decried the sex and violence that washed across the silver screen.

April 25, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

New Yorker film critic John Mosher opened his “Current Cinema” column with some musings about violence and “morals” in underworld films, declaring that until newspapers relegated sensational crime stories to the back pages, the public would be drawn to similar fare at the movies.

I’M GIVING THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT…Edward G. Robinson (left) played a hoodlum hoping to make the big time in 1931’s Little Caesar, a film that defined the gangster genre for decades to come. (IMDB)

Mosher noted that two of the more prominent gangster films currently making the circuit weren’t much to fuss about — City Streets, the “more pretentious” of the two movies, featured rising stars Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney. The prizefighting picture Iron Man featured another popular pair of actors, Lew Ayers and Jean Harlow. Mosher observed that no amount of camera tricks could make the slight Ayers look like a husky fighter. As for Harlow, Mosher found it distressing that it was her “platinum blonde” status, rather than her acting, that landed her in the picture.

WHO CARES?…That was the conclusion of critic John Mosher after sitting through the “pretentious” City Streets. At right, publicity photos for lead actors Sylvia Sidney and Gary Cooper. (IMDB)
NO, NOT THAT IRON MAN…Jean Harlow, top, was known for attributes other than her acting, according to critic John Mosher. As for her co-star, Lew Ayers, a few weeks in the gym and some protein shakes might have made for a more plausible prize fighter. (IMDB)

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Fashion of a Different Fashion

A New Yorker contributor since 1925 and denizen of the Algonquin Round Table, Frank Sullivan was a jolly soul known for his gentle wit and spoofs of cliches. His latest target was Lois Long’s fashion column “On and Off the Avenue,” penning a spoof that was indistinguishable from the original save for the change of one word in the title. Long’s actual column appeared in the magazine a few pages later, so no doubt a few readers started reading Sullivan’s spoof before realizing they had been had. I am among them. Some excerpts:

HE TOOK A FASHION TO FASHION…A wit herself, Lois Long no doubt enjoyed Frank Sullivan’s spoof of her fashion column. (Wikipedia/PBS)

Sullivan probably had a little extra time on his hands after the folding of the New York World newspaper, to which he contributed two or three humor columns a week before the grand old paper folded for good in February 1931. And so we have Sullivan again in the April 25 issue, and his “report” on the annual meeting of the International Association of Girls Who Have Danced with the Prince of Wales. Excerpts:

HOOFER…Apparently the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII), shown here in 1924, danced with many a lady before he abdicated the throne and married Wallis Simpson. (Pinterest)

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Getting High in Manhattan

E.B. White enthusiastically embraced many aspects of modern life, from the wonder of air travel to the spectacle of buildings climbing ever higher into the clouds above Manhattan. It seemed whenever someone was needed to report on a flight or check out progress on the latest skyscraper, White was there, eager to climb into cockpits or onto scaffolds to get a better a look at his fair city. In “The Talk of the Town” White recalled his visit to (almost) the very top of the Empire State Building, which was to open on May 1, 1931.

QUITE A SALTSHAKER…As E.B. White noted, the mooring mast atop the Empire State Building might have looked like a mere “saltcellar” from the ground, but in reality was as tall as a 20-story building, so quite a climb. Image at left shows inner stairwell winding to the top; bottom right, stairs to the 103rd floor of the Empire State Building. (Modern Mechanix/Evan Bindelglass-CBSNewYork)

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Helen Hokinson observed some subway etiquette…

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Bruce Bairnsfather offered a study in contrasts…

C.W. Anderson, and another example of an artist’s struggle…

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Next Time: From Bad to Awful…

Life Among the Snowbirds

Florida’s Palm Beach became a popular destination in the 1920s for well-heeled New Yorkers seeking a respite from winter’s cold and gloom.

Jan. 26, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin / Feb. 2, 1929 cover by Sue Williams.

Among them was the New Yorker’s nightlife correspondent and fashion critic Lois Long, who (writing in the Feb. 2 issue) discovered that many snowbirds left their fashion sense back home, or in some cases didn’t have any in the first place…

THOSE GENTLE BREEZES…Dining at the Coconut Grove in Palm Beach, 1928. (Town and Country)
Sufficiently appalled by the fashion scene, Long then offered some advice for those seeking a smarter look in the southern climes…

AHOY THERE…Beach pajamas were a popular choice in the 1920s. (
BIG BOOSTER…The financier Otto Kahn was one of Palm Beach’s biggest promoters. Here he relaxes with friends at one of his Palm Beach “cottages” (this one is the Oheka Cottage, designed by August Geiger, on North Ocean Boulevard). L to R: New York socialite  Sarah Jane Sanford, Otto Kahn, Margaret “Nin” Kahn Ryan (Kahn’s eldest daughter), Betty Bonstetten (of the Rothschild banking fortune), and seated, Nancy Yuille (tobacco heiress who would later marry the Viscount Adair and become the Countess of Dunraven) and Swiss architect Maurice Fatio. (Ellen Glendinning Ordway Collection via New York Social Diary)
LOIS IS WATCHING YOU…A sampling of 1920s Palm Beach fashions Lois Long might have spotted during her visit. (

Long concluded her fashion advice with the dictum that when in doubt, keep it simple…

Long must have made the trip with her husband, the New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, since he contributed his own take on the scene in the Feb. 16, 1929 issue — a two-page illustration titled “Go South, Young Man, Go South.” (click image to enlarge)

Palm Beach was also on the minds of the New Yorker editors when they composed the Jan. 26 issue, which featured a parody by Josie Turner of the popular Elsie Dinsmore book series: “Elsie Dinsmore at Palm Beach.” A brief excerpt:

Note: The Elsie Dinsmore books (there were 28 of them) featured an impossibly upright eight-year-old and were hugely popular in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Feb. 2, 1929 issue featured another Palm Beach-themed parody — this one by Frank Sullivan — that took a poke at Addison Mizner (1872-1933) a fixture of Palm Beach social life who designed resorts and houses for the rich and famous. He is often credited with giving South Florida its signature Mediterranean Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival styles of architecture (Augustus Mayhew, writing for the New York Social Diary, begs to differ: he notes that architect August Geiger established the style in Palm Beach three years before Mizner). An excerpt from Sullivan’s New Yorker parody:

Later in the piece, Sullivan took a crack at a fictitious member of Palm Beach society, a “Mrs. Twink,” who was engaged in the latest “fad” — fishing:

STORYTELLER IN BRICK AND STONE…Addison Mizner epitomized the “society architect.” He was known for making new buildings look like they had taken centuries to construct, even creating stories for his houses that described how they “evolved” through their many owners and historical eras. At right, Mizner’s own Palm Beach residence, Villa Mizner, on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. It was built in 1924. ( Hewitt)
HIS KIND OF PEOPLE…Fashionably dressed members of the Mizner-designed Everglades Club gather in the Marble Patio in the 1920s. (Historical Society of Palm Beach County)
STILL THERE…The Everglades Club today. Opened in January 1919, it was Mizner’s first big commission. (Wikipedia)

The Feb. 2 issue also featured this Peter Arno cartoon of one snowbird’s reaction to Palm Beach living:

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The New Yorker loved to take potshots at the news media, and particularly at the then rather staid New York Times, which apparently had secured exclusive rights to cover Admiral Richard Byrd’s famed exploration of the South Pole by airplane. In his Jan. 26 “Of All Things” column, Howard Brubaker quipped:

In the following issue, Feb 2, Rea Irvin imagined how a coddled Times reporter might cover the historic expedition:

ONE TOUGH BYRD…Admiral Robert Byrd (inset) led expeditions in the Antarctic from 1928 to 1930 by snowshoe, dog-sled, snowmobile and three airplanes that were transported (partially disassembled) by ship to a base camp on the Ross Ice Shelf. Pictured are Harold June, Commander Byrd, and Bernt Balchen in front of a Fairchild airplane, dubbed “Stars and Stripes.” The plane was used to take aerial photographs. (Richard E. Byrd Papers, The Ohio State University)

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Grouchy Groucho

Near the back of the Feb. 2 issue (page 61), comedian Groucho Marx contributed this tongue-in-cheek demand for a retraction from the New Yorker editors:

WIT…A young Groucho Marx in 1930. (Wikipedia)

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Fun With the Rockefellers

John K. Winkler contributed this piece to the Feb. 2, 1929 “Talk of the Town” that described a “playhouse” John D. Rockefeller Jr. had built for his five sons:

NOT FOR PEEWEE…The three-story playhouse on the Rockefeller estate at Pocantico Hills. (New York Social Diary)

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Next Time: Million Dollar Mermaid…


Conventional Follies of ’28

U.S. presidential elections have long provided fodder for the nation’s humorists, and the 1928 contest between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith was no exception.

March 31, 1928 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

In the March 31, 1928 issue of the New Yorker writer Frank Sullivan and cartoonist Al Frueh took particular delight in skewering the party nominating conventions. As Sullivan observed:

Regarding item No. 3, Sullivan was referring to Minnesota’s famed Mayo Clinic, and the related pride that was doubtless associated with the removal of an appendix from the wife of Al Smith, four-term governor of New York and nominee to lead the Democratic ticket.

The candidates could not have been more different. The first Catholic to be nominated for president, Al Smith was a crowd-loving, charismatic personality, a Tammany Hall politician and a committed “wet” who opposed Prohibition. He attracted strong support from Catholics, women, drinkers and those who were tired of the crime and corruption associated with dry America.

WET VS. WET BLANKET…The staid, “dry” Republican candidate Herbert Hoover (left) easily defeated the charismatic “wet” Democratic candidate Al Smith (right) in the 1928 U.S. Presidential Election.

Hoover, on the other hand, was deliberately dull and humorless, as stiff as his heavily starched collars and committed to keeping the country dry. But the economy under fellow Republican Calvin Coolidge was booming, and it didn’t hurt that many Protestants believed the Catholic Church would dictate Al Smith’s policies if he were elected. Sullivan had some fun with this perceived religious prejudice:

In light of the recent 2016 elections and the prominence of “Islamophobia” in the political rhetoric, Sullivan’s joke regarding the role of “Mohammedans” in the 1928 election is noteworthy:

Illustrations by Al Frueh, both top and bottom, aptly captured the picture Sullivan painted of the nominating process:

Al Smith would lose in a landslide. Journalists at the time attributed his defeat to the three P’s: Prohibition, Prejudice and Prosperity. Rural voters, who favored Hoover, also had a bigger say than their urban brethren: Republicans would benefit from a failure to reapportion Congress and the electoral college following the 1920 census, which had registered a 15 percent increase in the urban population. After the election, Smith became the president of Empire State Inc., the corporation that would build the the Empire State Building in 1930-31.

In his piece Sullivan also took at parting shot at President Coolidge…

…as did cartoonist J. Price in the same issue…

For reference, the image that inspired Price:

BIG CHIEF… Coolidge donned a headdress while being named an honorary Sioux chief (“Leading Eagle”) in Deadwood, South Dakota in the summer of 1927. (AP)

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New Yorker Monotypes

Another humorist who regularly contributed to the New Yorker was Baird Leonard, who beginning with the second issue of the magazine (Feb. 28, 1925) wrote a series titled “Metropolitan Monotypes.” Over five years and 36 installments Leonard wrote free-verse characterizations of various New York “types,” from debutantes to aesthetes to “The Anglomaniac” as described below in this installment from March 31, 1928:

As I’ve noted before, Anglophilia oozed from the New Yorker ads, particularly those directed at the male reader (France was a common lure in ads for women). Every issue from the 1920s is rife with examples, but sticking to the March 31 issue we find this ad employing the British slang for cigarettes to market a silly, dog-shaped cigarette case to fashionable women:

In the same issue this ad from Macy’s appealed to participants of a famous cultural event for the posh set—the annual Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue. A tradition dating back to the 1870s, in its first decades the “parade” was a display of wealth and beauty, as the well-to-do strolled from church to church to check out various floral displays.

The parade has changed considerably over the years, with high fashion given over to camp as the event has become far more democratic…

Young Couple strolling in the Easter Parade, 1928. (Retronaut)
WHAT A DIFFERENCE 90 YEARS MAKES…The Easter Parade in 2012. (

In 1928, the poor and middle classes were merely observers of the passing parade, perhaps hoping to learn something about the latest fashions. The April 14 “Talk of the Town” suggested as much:

And finally, our cartoon comes courtesy of Leonard Dove, who explores the lighter side of boxing…

Next Time: We Americans…